School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (QUT)
Rubble or not: Predicting transitions from healthy reefs to rubble on the Great Barrier Reef

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category


The Great Barrier Reef is the most iconic Queensland landscape and is facing more threats than ever before. Coral rubble is created when coral dies and is broken down by wave action and storms. Rubble itself is a natural and important habitat on reefs; however, when impacts like coral bleaching and cyclones repeatedly affect reefs, they can transition to rubble-dominated environments. When too much rubble is constantly moving on reefs, it can damage newly settled corals preventing reefs from recovering.

My research involves using spatial data about different impacts across the Great Barrier Reef such as cyclones in combination with maths to figure out which of the 3,000 reefs are most likely to transition to rubble. If we can accurately predict which reefs will have too much rubble, then we efficiently manage and apply solutions to stabilise rubble and restore coral reefs. 

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Queensland is home to the iconic Great Barrier Reef which was found to be the most inspirational Australian landscape in the 2013 Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program (SELTMP). Unsurprisingly, Queenslanders have a strong positive association with the Great Barrer Reef which is very much a part of the Queensland identity. In addition to these indirect benefits, the Reef contributes 3.9 billion AUD in economic value and 33 thousand jobs to the state (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017). A quarter of Queenslanders in coastal communities rely on the Reef for some of their household income (SELTMP, 2013). Queenslanders are also intimately impacted by the growing threats to the Reef from bleaching to cyclones. Nearly 80% of residents in coastal communities would be personally affected if the health of the Reef declined. 

Globally, we have seen healthy coral reefs transition to coral rubble-dominated states. As a part of the natural cycle of reefs, the rock skeletons of dead corals break up into rubble pieces through physical processes such as waves and storms. Coral rubble is an important part of reef environments and serves as a significant habitat in its own right. However, when coral reefs go through repeated impacts such as coral bleaching, cyclones, and dynamite fishing, too much rubble can form on reefs. Coral rubble can move with large wave events which can damage newly settled corals and prevent recovery. 

With climate change causing more frequent mass coral bleaching events and intense cyclones, there is a greater risk of coral rubble reaching this transition point in the Great Barrier Reef. The Rubble Stabilisation subprogram of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program aims to apply novel solutions to prevent coral reefs from transitioning to rubble states in the Great Barrier Reef.

A central question in conservation is how and where to use limited resources. The Great Barrier Reef is a classic case: stretching over 2,000 kilometres and with over 3,000 individual reefs. My work aims to use spatial data of coral rubble drivers and modeling to predict which reefs are most likely to become rubble dominated. 

I will use mathematical modeling to assess the contribution of factors that cause coral mortality (e.g., coral bleaching, crown of thorns seastars) and physical drivers (e.g., waves, cyclones, currents) to the generation of coral rubble across the Reef. Ultimately, this will be shared through an online, map-based public tool to communicate where the rubble risk is high. By assessing these cumulative impacts on rubble, we can inform managers and scientists where to monitor for increases in coral rubble and which rubble stabilisation methods to potentially use for restoration. 

Coral reefs will likely require active management and restoration in the face of climate change. My research contributes to this pressing need to maintain the health of the Reef. This in turn will provide significant direct and indirect benefits to the many Queenslanders who are deeply connected with the Great Barrier Reef economically, socially, and culturally. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)
Although women are more common in the fields of biology and ecology at the student level, leadership positions are predominantly held by men. I know firsthand what it feels like to not “see” myself in my field. Despite being privileged to an excellent education, I had no teachers that “looked like me” in the two basic dimensions of gender and ethnicity throughout my entire formal education. I did receive great support, however, and surrounded myself with a diverse group of female role models. Based on this, I intimately understand the importance of representation in STEM pathways.

Being an active role model for girls in STEM has been a priority since the beginning of my time in Australia. I have been involved in the Wonder of Science (WoS) program as a Young Science Ambassador promoting a culture of STEM across Queensland for six years. I have interacted with hundreds of primary and secondary students at school visits in the Brisbane area and rural regions such as Dalby, Dysart, and Moranbah. During classroom visits, I share my STEM journey in research and assist with curriculum-aligned challenge tasks. I have also participated in specific programs promoting girls in STEM such as GSTEM with Foxwell State School (2021) and the Coolumboola Environmental Education Centre’s STEM Girls Camp (2020). 

It is also important to support fellow women in STEM. I have witnessed how women are less likely to pursue opportunities they are qualified for then men. I have a support network of female peers where we share job and fellowship opportunities, provide feedback on applications, and discuss how to balance our personal aspirations like family with our STEM careers. This network is also critical for the inevitable rejections that we face in trying to purse research careers. As someone who knows the value of a good support network, I strive to be an active mentor to other women in STEM.

Outside of my personal support network, I am committed to promoting women in male-dominated areas of STEM such as coding, earth science, and maths. R Ladies is a global organisation dedicated to promoting gender equity in coding. I became a co-organiser for the Brisbane Chapter in 2020 and we currently have a community of over 750 on Meetup. It is surprising how many women use R and feel their skills are not “good enough” to share.  We also foster the development of R and other tech skills such as version control using Git. Being a role model means empowering women to share their knowledge and continually develop their quantitative skills that are often essential in STEM fields. 

Representation of women is not equal within STEM fields. My current postdoctoral position is split between the earth science and maths schools, two fields far from achieving gender equity. My supervisors recognise this and are enormously supportive of pursuing opportunities and promoting my work. Being within a supportive network comes with a responsibility to help girls “see themselves” in STEM and let women know that they belong there.  
ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

My STEM promotion and engagement activities fall within three broad categories: 
1) promoting a culture of STEM in Queensland through the Wonder of Science program, 
2) engaging girls in STEM internationally, and 
3) fostering gender equity in coding. 

My involvement with the Wonder of Science (WoS) program has been a uniquely rewarding experience. It has allowed me to shape “what a scientist looks” like through sharing my story of coming to Australia for my PhD to hundreds of primary and secondary school students since 2016. For example, I was a speaker for an assembly for the Cairns School of Distance Education Year 9 cohort and the organising teacher commended my work stating that my talk “certainly triggered great questions from staff and students.” I was invited back as a panellist for the school’s Science Week Flying Scientist Panel and moderated another panel last month with the Queensland Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Frazer, and two early-career researchers. 

Promoting inquiry-based learning is another key aspect of WoS. I have been a judge at numerous regional student conferences where students present their challenge task projects. At the 2021 state conference, I held a virtual coral bleaching workshop for the virtual attendees. 

My engagement also extends beyond the classroom. I have participated in community outreach such as sharing my research with teachers at the Northside Metropolitan Teacher’s Colloquium (2017, 2018) and at the Airlie Beach Flying Scientist public lecture (2019).
My STEM promotion also expands beyond Australia. I have participated in a Skype a Scientist program with students in the UK (2014) and spoken at the Pennsylvania State University Science-U camps (2016). My thesis research was based in Timor-Leste and outreach and dissemination of my results in-country was essential. In 2019, I presented a summary of my PhD thesis results to the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the National University of Timor-Leste, and industry stakeholders such as tourism operators, non-governmental organisations, and international aid groups. Gender equity is a pressing issue in-country and being able to speak to marine science students at the National University as a female role model was a highlight.

As a scientist who developed my coding skills throughout my postgraduate, I am passionate about promoting women in coding. I became a Certified Instructor (2019) for the Carpentries non-profit, which has a mission to build global capacity in essential data and computational skills for researchers and taught 2-day Carpentries workshops for the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation. This led to teaching R classes at The University of Queensland Library as a Technology Trainer, where I taught over 50 classes and 3 workshops in 6 months. As the only female trainer, I realised there is still a strong need to encourage girls and women that coding is for them. In this vein, I also became a co-organiser for the R Ladies Brisbane Chapter (2020) promoting women who use R. Since becoming a Certified Instructor, I emphasise the importance of coding skills in STEM fields to girls at outreach events.